OLD NEWS: Modest looking but mighty little roadster roars up Van Buren’s Log Town Hill in 1922
Your troubadour has a not especially historic reason for selecting today’s Old News — an automotive item from the Sept. 17, 1922, Arkansas Gazette.
Under the headline “Logtown Hill Is Climbed at Last,” the Gazette reported that a Wills Sainte Claire car had performed a hill-climbing test “never before accomplished by any other automobile.” It had ascended Log Town Hill at Van Buren in high gear .
Ignore the tedious problem of whether the hill’s name was one or two words. And, yes, we can say Log Town Hill was “at” rather than “in” Van Buren, because those city boundaries had not yet expanded to include that hill. US Census data suggest that in 1922 the city was home to only about 2,200 … uhh … Bureners? Burenites?
Not only did the car manage the uphill in high gear, it pulled over the top doing 10 miles per hour. Wheee!
“When it is considered that hundreds of attempts to climb this hill in recent years have been made by practically all makers of cars, many with multi-cylinder motors and high power, the performance of the Wills Sainte Claire becomes all the more spectacular,” the Gazette reported.
“The Logtown is one of the longest and stubbornest hills of the Southwest, and many an aspiring driver has dropped by the wayside in attempts to mount the hill in high.”
But now there was a record-holder, CE Faulhaber, who also owned a CH Wills & Co. dealership at 218 S. Louisiana St. in Little Rock. The car he drove belonged to Wayne E. Harding, secretary-treasurer of the Harding Glass Co. of Fort Smith.
This ride came about because Faulhaber was visiting Fort Smith and happened to meet Harding. Learning that Harding was unaware of the hill-climbing power of his modest-looking V-8 vehicle, Faulhaber undertook a demonstration.
Possibly today’s Van Buren residents will find this old report interesting, as might anyone who has looked down from the top of Log Town Hill and enjoyed its expansive view over town to the Arkansas River.
The report also might interest Arkansans old enough to recall the terrible Log Town Hill crash of 1985, in which a tractor-trailer truck loaded with frozen pork steaks lost its brakes on that mile of Arkansas 59 while plummeting downhill. The truck crushed a family’s station wagon. Both vehicles then slammed into a natural gas pipeline and a drugstore that was still outfitted with Civil War-era relics from its role as a set for the movie “The Blue and the Grey.” The resulting explosion damaged half a block (see arkansasonline.com/919crash). Nine people died.
And, of course, Friend Reader who knows all the Civil War facts also could be intrigued, because during that war — as one of the historical markers on Arkansas 59 puts it — “The residents of Log Town were witness to the retreat of the Rebel army through Van Buren and onward through their settlement. High on Log Town Hill the community watched as masses of Southern soldiers crowded the hill trying desperately to reach the riverboats. The commander of this Union Army raid, General [James G.] Blount, set up camp in a field on Log Town Hill” (see arkansasonline.com/919marker).
But none of those reasons is what sold me on this automotive item. I had one reason and one reason only.
IN A NAME
The Wills Sainte Claire automobile company, based in Michigan, was owned by one C. Harold Wills. According to a biography by Llewellyn Hedgbeth of Salem, Va., a staff writer for the auto history website Second Chance Garage, CH was one of Henry Ford’s first employees.
A metallurgist, Wills perfected the use of vanadium steel for Ford. He was Ford’s chief engineer, and he turned the entrepreneur’s sketches into automotive design plans.
Wills eventually fought with Ford and left his employ — as a multimillionaire. Then Wills developed his own, luxury, brand — the Wills Sainte Claire.
“Outwardly it appeared a handsome, moderate-sized car, though certainly not a flashy one,” Hedgbeth writes. “Its real claim to fame, however, came in its state-of-the-art patented processes, precise engineering, and impressive mechanical features.”
And its price: roughly $3,000 per car.
That was more than many fine houses cost in 1922. And compare that to the Model T Ford, which cost about $300.
The Gray Goose roadster wasn’t large, and luxury cars 100 years ago were large. The motor also couldn’t be repaired without taking the whole thing apart; so it wasn’t cheap to fix. But that roadster’s V-8 engine could do 70 mph — in 1922! And Wills set the price in part to pay his workers a good living.
Jay Leno, the television hall of famer, has restored a 1922 Gray Goose roadster. Leno shows off what he calls its “genius little motor” and other intelligent detailing in a fascinating 29-minute video, seen here:
But here — finally — is what tickled me about this news item:
Wills also was one of those guys who never, ever, uses his first name. And it was Childe.
His mother was a fan of the rakish poet Lord Byron, author of “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.” I don’t know whether Friend Reader suffered the misfortune of having been assigned to read that iambic Spencerian exemplar of Romanticism in school (see arkansasonline.com /919poem), but it’s a long, loooong, four-part travelogue in which a dissolute man gives over his damaging pursuits and his home to wander in deep disillusion around war-exhausted and ruined Europe in his sandal-shoon and scallop shell, stopping here and there to gaze with melancholy eyes or fondle the ocean. For instance:
And I have loved thee, Ocean! and my joy
Of youthful sports was on thy breast to be
Borne like thy bubbles, onward: from a boy
I wantoned with thy breakers — they to me
Were a delight; and if the freshening sea
Made them a terror — ’twas a pleasing fear,
For I was as it were a child of thee,
And trusted to thy billows far and near,
And laid my hand upon thy mane — as I do here.
Ahem! C. Harold Wills was an American engineer, not a mopey Byronic hero. And good for him.
Gallery: Wills Sainte Claire 1922